Learning from Failure: Adventurous problem-solving with ethical dilemmas | Harbord & Khan | 5 Min Read

Greek mythology contains stories of victory and defeat. Icarus, for example, didn’t get a second chance. In spite of his father’s warning, he flew too close to the sun and his wings fell apart. This example of flight contains a warning about failure. An example of flight that we find inspiring is the more modern-day idea of using origami as a space-saving mechanism in CubeSats (miniature satellites). Who would have imagined origami as a mechanism? This is an excellent example of novel and creative thinking. What other ideas are common and around us but haven’t been given a new context? 

Teacher’s Tip: How about giving your students a task based on this idea? How can students rescale and repurpose ways of making (e.g. crochet, knitting, crazy paving, patchwork, joinery) in intrepid ways? 

Heroes often succeed, but they also fail and don’t have opportunities to learn from their failures. Students are under tremendous pressure in the quest for mastery. As opposed to labors and trials, they face tests and exams. Although educators say we learn through failure, our grading systems and exams do not allow students to fail with impunity. If our educational systems do not support how we learn, then we have a problem.

Outside of mythology and heroism, we can consider the value of failure in student learning. If we fail the first time we try something and are allowed to examine why it happened, we can modify our ideas and approaches and try again. Unlike Sisyphus, who was forever condemned to push a rock up a hill only for it to roll back, students can use an iterative cycle and move forward in their quest. Design Thinking gives students opportunities to fail and keep trying different iterations until the problem is solved.

Heroes also have to develop new skills when facing increasingly challenging tasks, which is similar to the progression of levels in gaming. One of the attractions of gaming for young people is a failure because they can return and try again. Failure is just a process, and mainstream education needs a mechanism that not only condones failure but celebrates the resilience required to try again. Perhaps by using the catchphrase ‘Try again,’ this could be another way to say ‘It’s okay to fail, try again!’

Ethical Dilemmas: Adventurous problem-solving requires risk-taking and creativity

Integrating ethical dilemmas into the curriculum appeals to students’ emotions and offers them adventurous ways to engage with and evaluate their learning. Ethical dilemmas offer a safe place to explore alternative opinions, different ways of looking at a problem, and the realization that failure is a part of creating new solutions. Through experiencing failure and being allowed to fail, students learn how risk-taking can offer new breakthroughs. Focusing on the process instead of the product can reduce the pressure on students. Ethical dilemmas encourage students to focus on the process as well as reflect on complex issues. 

Here are two (2) different ethical dilemmas to explore with your students:

Teacher’s Tip: Try these out soon and let us know how your students navigated the dilemmas. Failure is a confronting experience and leads to downfall versus failure leads to innovative perspectives and growth. Public statues should remain in place and be understood in the context of their time versus public statues should reflect society’s changing values and definitions of what is acceptable.

The 1966 sci-fi film, Fantastic Voyage, offers an original approach to problem-solving. The submarine crew, under pressure to repair a scientist’s brain, is shrunk so they can enter his body. A more contemporary version of this is nanorobots, as referenced in our book, Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4&5 (2020): “These (nanorobots) are being developed to work within the human body e.g. via the circulatory system and dense tissue to fight cancer cells and carry medication… In a study conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Institute… and other international scientists, nanorobots were able to drill through eye tissue. These were covered with non-stick coating inspired by the liquid on the carnivorous pitcher plant”(Jacofsky, D. Personal communication, April 1, 2019). In Scientific terms nano means less than 1 micron in 2 or 3 dimensions; there are 10,000 microns in a centimeter. Creative solutions may be found in motion pictures or in the laboratory.

Exploring metacognition and our personal responses when considering an ethical dilemma may not be as dramatic as The Fantastic Voyage or Odysseus navigating past the whirlpool Charybdis, but they are valuable strategies for developing student awareness. Ethical dilemmas require adventurous thinking, and we can harness the emotions they generate to engage students. Through ethical dilemmas, we can combine adventurous thinking and emotions in an iterative cycle of knowledge about ourselves and the world around us. However, these strong emotions can also be challenging and students may need support.

Our Circles of Reflection Toolⓒ can guide students on a voyage of self-awareness on the high seas of their higher thinking skills as they respond to an ethical dilemma, and identify the nature and quality of their response, reflect on what this reveals about themselves, and consider how this knowledge about their self-awareness impacts their social interactions and knowledge of others. Developing an awareness of their values and beliefs as well as their biases can support students as they identify what worked, what didn’t, why it didn’t, and how they can modify their ideas to problem-solve solutions. Identifying triggers, things they are passionate about and care about as well as taking risks in their thinking are lifelong skills that can enrich students’ lives. The Circles of Reflection Toolⓒ  can aid students in the process of reflection and revision, evaluating ideas, and modifying and trying different solutions. Teachers can use it to explore any topic by adapting the first two inner circles.

In mythological traditions, heroic figures are often flawed and their failure to overcome these flaws results in tragedy. Even if they reflect on or regret their choices, there is no opportunity for redemption. The idea of seeking and searching connects quests and questions. The journey is both an inner and outward one: going on quests and finding answers require self-awareness and perseverance. Learning from failure and seeing failure as merely part of the learning process, as opposed to something that needs fixing, builds resilient and curious learners.

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Harbord and Khan

Meredith Harbord EdD and Sara Riaz Khan are global educators who use ethical dilemmas to enrich and transform curriculum. Their student centric approach is driven by an ethical model and innovative tools that support critical thinking and creativity. Meredith and Sara’s collaboration as Design teachers at ABA Oman International School in Muscat, focused on sustainability, ethical design and global mindedness and inspired them to establish Harbord & Khan Educational Consultants. They develop units of work based on real world issues to engage and challenge students for diverse curriculums (IB, PBL, Common Core and Australian) and are available for professional development and to create programs to meet the specific needs of your school. Meredith and Sara have authored two teacher curriculum books ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Interdisciplinary Thinking for Schools: Ethical Dilemmas MYP 4 & 5’ (2020). Website: https://harbordandkhan.com/

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